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Gaza's only power plant taken out; utility official says attack 'catastrophic' for 1.8 million

| Tuesday, July 29, 2014, 8:42 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS A Palestinian man stands looking as flames engulf the fuel tanks of the only power plant supplying electricity to the Gaza Strip after it was hit by overnight Israeli shelling, on July 29, 2014, in the south of Gaza City. The damage of the power plant exacerbated the heavy damage to civilian infrastructure in Gaza already inflicted during the 22 days of the Israeli offensive aimed at stamping out militant rocket fire and destroying attack tunnels. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMSMAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS A Palestinian man reacts in front of a destroyed mosque after it was hit by an Israeli air strike, on July 29, 2014, in Gaza City. Bloodshed in and around Gaza surged with strikes killing at least 13 Palestinians, a day after five Israeli soldiers died, shattering hopes for an end to three weeks of violence. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMSMAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

GAZA CITY — Israeli forces pounded Hamas symbols of control and Gaza's only power plant in one of the heaviest bombardments in the three-week conflict, trying to raise pressure on the Islamist group to accept Israel's terms for a cease-fire.

The attack left the Palestinian territory's 1.8 million residents with no electricity or running water and opened the possibility of an even graver humanitarian crisis.

“The missile, which targeted the power plant, actually targeted 1.8 million Palestinians,” said Jamal Dardasawi, a spokesman for Gaza's electricity distribution department.

“It is the most awful missile attack of the whole war. They have caused a catastrophic humanitarian situation.”

Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli army spokesman, said the military could not confirm whether its forces had struck the power plant.

Gaza Health Ministry officials said the Israeli attacks overnight and during the day on Tuesday killed more than 110 Palestinians, pushing the death toll on the Palestinian side to 1,193. The United Nations said about 70 percent of those killed were civilians.

“With the power station gone, all of Gaza is going to collapse,” said Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza's Al Azhar University. “They're trying to put direct pressure on the Palestinians.”

Along the coast of the seaside enclave, Israel hit a fishing harbor, causing hotels where scores of international journalists are staying to shake. Airstrikes hit the Rafah area, along Gaza's border with Egypt, according to news reports.

An announcement by the Palestine Liberation Organization that Palestinian factions were ready for a 24-hour “humanitarian truce” was rejected by Hamas, reflecting the political divisions that have stymied attempts to end the fighting.

In an audio recording broadcast on Hamas' Al Aqsa television channel, Mohammed Deif, leader of the group's military wing, said, “There will be no cease-fire without ending the blockade and the aggression on Gaza.”

Israel said that its forces had come under attack from militants in Gaza emerging from a concealed tunnel. A gunbattle followed, although no details were immediately available. The Israeli military reported a similar infiltration on Monday evening, saying five soldiers were killed in a battle with militants from Gaza who entered southern Israel via a tunnel. At least one militant died.

The deaths of the five soldiers brought the number of Israeli troops killed in the three-week-old conflict to 53, the largest toll since Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon. Mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza killed two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

Rocket barrages from Gaza sent people in Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital, scurrying to shelters in the dead of night.

In the center of Gaza City, an airstrike obliterated the al-Amin Mohammed Mosque opposite the Gaza home of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In 2007, when it seized control of Gaza, Hamas took over the home and used it to house senior leaders. The militants handed it back to Abbas earlier this year after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority reached an agreement on forming a unity government.

Neighbors said that the mosque was not Hamas-run and that anyone could pray there.

“This is a mosque for the public, and I am one of the public,” said Muhammed Abdu, a 45-year-old engineer, as he looked at a cavernous hole filed with debris where the mosque had stood. “This is all part of a strategy to burn Gaza down.”

He said the attack underscored the need for a cease-fire. But like many Gazans interviewed during the past two days, Abdu said the core Palestinian demand of lifting an economic blockade by Israel and Egypt should be met.

“To bring milk in for your child, is that a crime?” Abdu asked. “To have an open crossing so that you can leave for medical care, is that a crime? To travel outside for your business, is that a crime?”

Near the Nusairat refu­gee camp, in the middle of the Gaza Strip, the shattered fuel tank of the territory's primary power plant continued to emit flames and thick plumes of smoke hours after being hit.

The plant is Gaza's primary source of electricity, powering sewage treatment systems, water pumps and hospitals, said Dardasawi, the Palestinian official. Especially so, he added, because six of eight electricity supply lines that run from Israel were damaged. Egypt supplies electricity, he added, but hardly enough to power the border town of Rafah.

“This is like a time bomb,” said Dardasawi, referring to the looming humanitarian crisis.

Outside the Beach Camp neighborhood of Gaza City, neighbors gathered to express anger. Not far away, 10 people, including seven children, were killed in an attack on Monday that Hamas and Israel blamed on each other.

But most fled when they heard two small missiles from an Israeli drone strike the house, presumably as a warning, residents said. Minutes later, a powerful airstrike, possibly from an Israeli F-16, brought down the house in a pinpoint attack that did little damage to the surrounding homes in this densely packed enclave.

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